Danse the Night Away

Claudia La Rocco on “DANSE: A French-American Festival of Performance & Ideas”

Alain Buffard, Baron Samedi, 2012. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, May, 2014. Dorothée Munyaneza, Nadia Beugré, Will Rawls. Photo: Ian Douglas.

YOU SAY “DANSE,” and I say “dance.”

Let’s call the whole thing off.

Or, no, wait, let’s throw a big old festival, eighteen days of French performance, so that we can socialize and skirmish and generally make merry at arts institutions big and small across the great metropolis of New York. Vive la schmoozing! Vive la la!

I logged three shows and one panel extravaganza during the first four days of “Danse: A French-American Festival of Performance & Ideas,” organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. I wanted to see a fourth show, but I never was able to figure out (dumb American) the color-coded map for les gens d’Uterpan’s Topologie, which sends five dancers on daily gestural walking tours of Long Island City.

Though, in a way, I feel like not seeing the work might have been as good as seeing it. As Brian Rogers, the artistic director of the Chocolate Factory, which is presenting Topologie, wrote in an email:

“this piece has been hilarious to coordinate
it might be a huge conceptual bullshit joke
or it might be brilliant, I can’t tell”

Indeed. Just the idea of it out there, lurking and skittering all around MoMA PS1’s weirdo performance dome on Sunday afternoon while the usual suspects sat for almost four hours of “Dancing is Talking/Talking is Dancing: Conversations in Contemporary Choreography”—well, it felt like a necessary existential corrective to the not-very-much-at-all dancing happening dome-side. (More on that later, maaaaybe, but for now I’d just like to say that the juxtaposition between the 1960s, when choreographers decided to change the terms of what could be considered dance, and more recent decades, when choreographers have found it more expedient to disavow dance as a thing that relates to them at all, even while milking their status as performers to gain access to museums, pretty much says it all about what has changed in the intervening years in Western society along the lines of optimism over the possibility of progress in the world.)

And, you know, dear reader, if you don’t go to things you are able to experience them with a certain purity—through the eyes of others. For example, as another colleague texted about another Danse I missed:

“omgeezus. white french choreographer, black dancers voguing, finale was to ‘Strange Fruit.’ I need a Xanax so I dont slap someone into oblivion.”

That was in reference to Frédéric Nauczyciel and House of HMU’s The Fire Flies [Solos/Portraits] at Julie Meneret Contemporary Art. It gets pretty directly to a certain American, shall we say, squeamishness with regard to the handling of race in European works.

Christian Rizzo, sakınan göze çöp batar, 2012. Performance view, FIAF, New York, May 2014. Kerem Gelebek. Photo: Marc Domage.

Ok ok, that’s a giant and vague generalization. So maybe we can talk about the three works I did see last week: Alain Buffard’s final dance, Baron Samedi, 2012, at New York Live Arts; Christian Rizzo’s sakinan göze çöp batar (an overprotected eye always gets sand in it), at the French Institute Alliance Française’s Florence Gould Hall; and altered natives’ Say Yes to Another Excess—TWERK by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud at the Kitchen. Very different pieces, but they do all share a common setup: French choreographers (Bengolea is from Buenos Ares but has lived and worked in Paris for almost fifteen years) working with non-white and often non-French dancers to explore territory both didactic (immigration) and sensual (club dancing), and all of it territory fraught and political.

“Was that racist?” an audience member puzzled after Buffard’s piece Thursday night. Though it felt unfinished to me, Baron Samedi I think is playing with tricky questions about power and place and what does and doesn’t translate across geographic and racial lines in a pretty knowing manner. I miss Buffard, who died of cancer late last year—he was a smart and poetic artist. Still, there are questions of ethnic voyeurism that unsettle. Who’s allowed to talk about this stuff, and how? And by stuff I mean a set of loose post-colonial targets, acted out in and through jostling fragments of dance and Kurt Weil songs and often brutal mimed action, mostly black bodies on a curving white stage (I think it might have appealed to Buffard’s dark sense of humor that the fine performers in this piece are now left to fend for themselves in a world organized by their now-departed choreographer.) On this side of the Atlantic we tend to err in the other direction, seeing race as the purview of non-white artists—you know, the better to pigeonhole them while the majority goes about peddling its “universal” aesthetic.

So, ok, that has obvious problems. But somehow Rizzo making a solo about alienation for Kerem Gelebek, a dancer who is described in the program as a “Turkish immigrant,” seems like it might do with a bit more examining. And just disruption in general—sakinan göze çöp batar, which features the super-precise manipulation of objects and fluidly calibrated movements that often seem to carry the slow-motion ghosts of forms like breaking and capoeira, is violently antiseptic, controlled and polished within an inch of its life.

Such is not the case with altered natives’ Say Yes to Another Excess—TWERK. Performed by Bengolea, Chaignaud, Alex Mugler, Ana Pi, and Élisa Yvelin, the fifty-minute romp through dances that run the gamut from Nijinsky-inflected ballet to MTV jiggling is something of a hot mess, mostly not in a good way. (The taut, gorgeously structured musical contribution of DJ Elijah and DJ Skilliam stood in sharp contrast.) During the mystifying standing ovation that followed, and as an excited older gentleman in the front row happily commented to his companion, “I got a little confused there for a moment about boys and girls,” I thought dismally of those crossover ballet projects, in which some big company inevitably embarrasses itself in an effort to get street cred through the use of pop culture. (I haven’t yet seen New York City Ballet’s JR effort, and so maybe I’m being horribly unfair, but…) Altered natives felt similarly naïve and superficial in its adoption of queer club posturing—especially as it read in New York, where this stuff is hardly an exotic other.

Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, altered natives’ Say Yes to Another Excess – Twerk, 2012. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, May 2014. Elisa Yvelin, Alex Mugler, Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, and Ana Pi. Photo: Paula Court.

I’ve never quite understood all the fuss around Bengolea and Chaignaud—it’s totally great if you want to dance around naked with shiny dildos stuffed up your assholes, as they did in Pâquerette. It just isn’t all that interesting.

But as I watched them often awkwardly vamp it up at the Kitchen on Sunday, I thought of what a young French dancer had said to me earlier at the MoMA PS1 event, which was in large part dedicated to Xavier Le Roy, who has long since represented The Academy in France, along of course with Jérôme Bel. This dancer was saying that the relief and liberation offered by charismatic performers like Bengolea and Chaignaud, who believe in dance’s strength to go in other directions than the typically cerebral and hyper-reflexive creations of Le Roy and Bel’s followers, should not be discounted in France. (I’m not sure I like any of these words to describe what Le Roy et al have wrought in France and beyond—is “overdetermined” better? Certainly “conceptual” and “non-dance” are awful and limiting, and these guys are nothing if not theatrically minded. Ugh. Why are adjectives so difficult?)

I still didn’t like the dance any. But I liked what they wrote in the program, that they “have set themselves the challenge to trust dance, its expressive, brotherly, poetic, preconscious and discursive powers.” I like that it suggests there needn’t be an either/or between smart and sexy.

Oh you guys. This is already too long, and I haven’t gotten anywhere. I haven’t talked about how Claire Bishop whipped out her predictable brand of art-panel thuggery at MoMA PS1 and essentially said that the choreographers Trajal Harrell, Miguel Gutierrez, and Sarah Michelson should be seen and not heard. I haven’t talked about how Le Roy’s Untitled lecture was sweetly funny and proves again what a ham he is (is that despite or because he started out as a molecular biologist?). Nor how gorgeously subversive and winning Will Rawls was in Baron Samedi. I haven’t even said that some of my best friends are French choreographers, and it even might be true.